Blue Bombers trying to find way back to Grey Cup

Blue Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice piloted his team to the Grey Cup game last season and will...

Blue Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice piloted his team to the Grey Cup game last season and will try to do the same this go-around with an overhauled roster. (TODD KOROL/Reuters file photo)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:36 PM ET

WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Blue Bombers relied on an aggressive front seven and an even more aggressive secondary a year ago to get them to the Grey Cup.

The offence managed not to get in the way.

A return trip is likely only going to be tougher. It’s certainly going to be different with more personnel change this year in Winnipeg than a season ago.

Head coach Paul LaPolice and his staff took a 2-14 team from the 2010 season and turned it into an Eastern Division champ and Grey Cup finalist with limited changes to the roster.

This year not only is LaPolice’s roster had a bit of an overhaul, his own coaching staff has as well.

Among those who played key roles for the Bombers who will not be back this season are retiring DT Doug Brown, retiring centre Obby Khan, slot receiver Greg Carr who was signed by Edmonton as a free agent, and OG Brendon LaBatte who used free agency to get back home to Saskatchewan.

The team also chose to trade Odell Willis, the CFL’s co-sack leader a year ago to Saskatchewan in exchange for a pick in the amateur draft.

The front office was saying all the right things about the losses — how change is never easy but necessary or how replacing a CFL legend such as Doug Brown is all but impossible — but that doesn’t change the fact that the Bombers have to find a way without those guys now.

The only name addition to the roster thus far has come on the coaching staff where one-time Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Gary Crowton joins LaPolice and will take over the play-calling that LaPolice has done himself the past two seasons.

Crowton brings 30 years of coaching experience — most of it in the NCAA — to Winnipeg.

What he doesn’t bring is a history of any three-down football. The Bart Andrus fan club in these parts can tell you where that can possibly lead.

LaPolice isn’t worried. In fact he says he’s “excited” to see what Crowton can bring to the Bombers.

“I think me opening up the play-calling wasn’t so much a necessity as I think it’s just something Gary is going to be great at,” LaPolice said.

“Sometimes when people come on board, part of the fun for them is to be able to call the plays, so certainly I have faith that he will do a good job of it. That was more the reasoning than it freed me up to do other things.”

While there will obviously be a learning curve for Crowton — even with his vast experience — LaPolice said his new offensive coordinator is already busy designing an offensive package that gets the ball out of quarterback Buck Pierce’s hands quicker — but is also designed to specifically take advantage of Pierce’s skill set.

LaPolice is confident that with an experienced CFL offensive coordinator on staff (himself), Crowton should be able to ease himself into the role with a bit of a guiding hand.

“He does have someone to lean on,” LaPolice said. “It’s a lot harder with no one else. I can help him in that aspect — but I want to let him experience and have some creativity and say ‘Hey, I want to try this’ too. It just takes reps.”

The key to the Bombers’ season though could very well come down to Chris Garrett.

The elusive running back who took over from Fred Reid last August when the veteran went down with injury, can cure a lot of what ailed the Bombers’ offence a year ago.

“One of the things we want to make sure we do a better job of is making sure we’re getting seven and eight yards on our first down to put ourselves in second and short rather than putting us in second and long,” LaPolice said.

“Garrett went in late in the year and created a lot more first downs or putting us in second-and-short situations. That’s an area we think Chris will even help us more.”

And while losing Willis, despite his off-field issues, cannot be viewed as anything but a negative — even when you consider the Bombers got three draft picks back for him — LaPolice does not anticipate that departure affecting Winnipeg’s ability to get to the quarterback.

LaPolice pointed out the progress made by Jason Vega, Kenny Mainor and Rodney Fritz and the fact that a year earlier the team lost sack master Philip Hunt and somehow carried on.

“When we lost Philip Hunt two years ago, we asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to be able to continue to produce at a high level?’ and we still did the next year. That’s our job,” he said.

The loss of the non-import Brown in the front four meant letting punishing import middle linebacker Joe Lobendahn go which should open a spot in the starting defensive unit for one of Canadians Henoc Muamba or Pierre-Luc Labbe.

That battle at middle linebacker should be one of the best in training camp.

It will also go a long way to determining whether the Bombers defence can bring the swagger back to Swaggerville.

Another run at the Grey Cup will depend on it.

WHAT’S THE TWITTER ALL ABOUT?

In reality, Twitter has been around for six years.

In Winnipeg, they make it sound like it’s the latest new gimmick to hit society.

In fairness, the city’s CFL team is dealing with the kind of Twitter crisis no workplace would wish on its worst enemy.

This past off season, the team’s best defender, in fact, Jovon Johnson is the reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player in the league, publicly mocked team management on his Twitter account for what he felt was a snail-like contract negotiation.

Johnson eventually got his deal and is promising to be a little more particular about what he puts out there on Twitter.

Jonathan Hefney, another key member of Winnipeg’s stout defence didn’t like the fact that the Bombers were losing some key players to free agency and publicly fingered GM Joe Mack as the reason on his Twitter account.

Mack said Tuesday that some steps have already been taken and more are to come with respect to setting down some firm guidelines for players and their use of Twitter.

“It’s partly an education process for us to make them realize that once they put something on Twitter or Facebook or whatever, it goes out to the entire world,” Mack said. “They have to be more cognizant of that.”

Head coach Paul LaPolice admitted he was disappointed in some of his players’ off-season use of the social-media network but has spoken individually with the players in question and feels the team has a handle on things now.

“As a member of the CFL, we certainly want to engage our fans,” LaPolice said. “ It’s one of the best parts of the CFL. But we have to have an understanding . We don’t want them putting it out there if they’re not comfortable saying at half time of the Grey Cup. Don’t fire a loaded gun if you’re emotional.”

LaPolice said the team has added a social-media training element to it’s camp schedule to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Mack just wants his players to be more careful.

“Hopefully they’ll be more judicious with this sort of thing going forward,” he said.


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